Interview: Mike Mearls on the Playtesting Process of D&D Next

Mike Mearls, senior manager of Dungeons & Dragons research and development, with Liz Schuh, head of publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons.

(C) Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

On June 15th, we conducted an interview over Skype with Mike Mearls, head of Research & Design of D&D at Wizards of the Coast. Also during that day, Mike was participating in an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit, so some of the answers make reference to that. This interview has been transcribed, paraphrased, and edited by us from the call. We chose to mainly focus on the process of playtesting and design for D&D Next for this interview.

Critical Hits: How is the AMA on Reddit going?

Mike Mearls: It doesn’t matter how many questions I answer- more stuff just keeps showing up. It’s funny, I think most of the answers have boiled down to “yes, we’re giving the Fighter maneuvers, we just haven’t gotten to it yet.” Which fits the playtest feedback too, where I think 80% of the surveys said they wanted it too. Even players of older editions are saying that. It’s just funny to see it.

CH: Let’s talk about some of the new rules, like Advantage/Disadvantage. When the survey responses come in, is most of the feedback focused on those new rules, or is more about the older rules that have been brought forward?

MM: It’s a mix, yeah. One of the things we did with the playtester base was to set the framework based on the questions we asked. The first thing we want to look at is the new mechanics: Advantage, action economy, and so on because it’s a change from what D&D has been doing the past few editions. We’re mainly taking the temperature of the room, asking “do you like this or not?” Then deciding where we want to go from there.

Healing has been one area that’s been getting tons of attention. It’s funny, if you went back to the days of 2nd edition and gave those players the D&D Next document exactly as it is now, I think people would be like “woah, there’s so much healing, I have these hit dice I can spend.” But now that they’ve played 4th edition, they’re just like “there’s not enough healing in this game.” It’s one of those things that has changed. It’s interesting to get people’s perception of what D&D “is” and see that it has changed over time.

The really interesting thing is that preferred edition plays some role in it, but it’s nowhere as big of an effect as you’d think. Like, everyone loves at-will spells, it’s one of the most positive things. Even players who played OD&D or 1st edition, it’s not like they’re 90% against it. There’s still some shifts, but it’s overall positive among all those groups. It’s interesting to see what’s new to different people too.

CH: All the surveys I’ve seen have asked how long have you played D&D. You’re saying the differences haven’t been that pronounced?

MM: Yeah. To give you an example, we have a lot of people who say they want the Fighter to have more options. It’s the most pronounced among players who have played 3rd and 4th, but you still see more than half the players who played 2nd or 1st saying that as well. I think it’s because even though 1st edition didn’t have that, they know what they want to play. So a player who plays a newer edition with a simple Fighter says “if I wanted that, I could play AD&D” but in this context of playing a newer edition, I want that thing, so just go ahead and give it to me.

Doing the AMA today has shown that- I don’t want to call the questions boring, but a lot of them have been the same. Like “why is the Fighter boring?” OK, we’re going to add maneuvers to answer that, so I’ll move on. Then the other question is “if we’re already playing an edition of D&D we like, why should we switch?” What it comes down to is that those editions have a very specific flavor. In Next, if we do it right, you’ll be able to make your own edition of D&D, and maybe in a way you weren’t able to before, just because it’s more than house rules.

CH: There’s still those pieces that you’ve identified as being “core” to D&D, through whatever process. If the playtest feedback comes back, and wanted to change something you consider core, would that be doable? For one example, the Ranger design goals were posted, and the question came back if ranger really needed to be a class, instead of a theme or something similar. Is changing something like that still on the table? 

MM: There’s something that’s really core like the fighter and it’s going to be in the game. However, as long as there’s something in the game called a Ranger, it doesn’t really matter so much how we express that, as long as it’s in there and the people playing it say “yeah, that’s a Ranger.” For example, we saw feedback that said “we want more themes. Cut down the number of classes and just give us more themes.” That’s something we could do. I don’t think we’d go down that way because the feedback has been pretty consistent that people like them as classes. But if that’s where the feedback was going, we’d go that way.

That sort of cuts to the essence of my job, as the guy in charge of the R&D team. What matters for us is to think of D&D as a collection of tropes and stories. It’s not really just the rules, right? What’s really important in D&D is that there’s something called a Paladin who does X, Y, and Z things. If you look at a video game, and you needed a Paladin. Let’s say it’s a Skyrim-type game and you meet a Paladin NPC. What’s really important in that context is that you know what this guy is like, and hits these three or four key points. Whether it’s a Paladin of Pelor or whatever, you say “oh yeah, this is a Paladin, I get it.” Then if you’re playing a card game or one of our board games: you get it. This is a Paladin. If you’re playing him in an Adventure System game, or it’s a Lords of Waterdeep quest to recruit Paladins, you understand it. This quest requires a bunch of clerics and a bunch of fighters. Or I’m sending people who fight alongside Paladins.

In the RPG, how you express things mechanically, isn’t as important if it feels like a Paladin. If he starts as a Fighter and adds something to become a Paladin, it’s only important that it feel like he’s playing a Paladin. You have X, Y, and Z, and these mechanics are expressing that element.

I think there’s a lot more on the table than people expect. There’s still some trust we have to win back and earn back with people, and the only way we can earn that back is by showing people we take the feedback very seriously.

CH: When you receive conflicting responses on the survey- half the people are positive and half the people are negative about one thing- how do you handle it? Do you have any examples of rules people are split on?

MM: I think one example is pretty obvious: we’ve seen it with minis and the grid. A good chunk of the audience says “those should be required.” And there’s a bigger but not decisively bigger chunk that says “no, those should be optional.” Not to make this a cop-out – people have said that modularity is just an excuse to say “play with whatever!” and that the game is nothing- it really is about saying that people have different views in what D&D should be, and what is important about D&D.

I think there are some things everybody agrees on. D&D is a roleplaying game. There’s going to be a game master/DM who is in charge of the rules and the world, then there’s people playing characters. But some people would say- oh, here’s one example. I was reading somewhere, probably EN World, where someone was really unhappy with the playtest. He was a 4th edition player, and I was thinking “oh, that makes sense, he really likes tactical combat.” And what he said was what he really likes about 4th edition is that he and his friends are just sitting on couches, and his friends describe what they want to do. He makes up a DC, and they roll a die, and if he rolls high enough, they succeed. And so I was like “huh?” and the theory in the office is that the only book he bought is the DMG and that’s the only book he owns.. But for that guy, that’s D&D for him, and not only that, that’s 4th edition for him.

When you have that approach, where the game is very idiosyncratic in deciding what is important to you, modularity is hugely important. Here’s one example: I have this old Livejournal post that people have been pointing to. I don’t know what people think it means, so I can only say what I thought when I wrote it. The idea is that if you really like combat you want tactical problems to solve, and you’re happier when the DM is making fewer judgment calls and more just applying the rules. So the player knows that if he wants cover from the Orc, he knows exactly where to move. He doesn’t want the DM to say “well, that tree is really thin, so you really can’t hide behind it.” They don’t want to run into stuff like that. They want more predictability. So if the rules are predictable, the tactical challenge is what ability do I want to use, where do I want my character to go, where do we want to force the monsters to go, stuff like that.

If you’re a guy who really wants to just play his character, to play the story, to explore the world, you might think “I want combat to be 5 minutes long” and you’re fine with the DM making calls, and you don’t want to move a guy around the grid: you just don’t care. You just want to say I attack the orc, I cast fireball, and so on. Both kinds of players would describe themselves as hardcore D&D fans, and they want polar opposites in the system.

So that’s really where modularity can come in. We can make the core for the guy who really doesn’t care about combat and is pretty happy because the rules are straightforward. Then the guy who wants rich, tactical combat in battles, he can say “I want complexity.” That way, a game defaults to being simple all around, and you can pick which parts you want to add rules to. I just drop in the depth I want as I go.

CH: A lot of those decisions are made from the DM level. Whether you use a grid or not is going to fall upon the DM. Do you see there being a way to reconcile those two players at the same table? If one player wants more predictability, and another wants the DM to make calls, do you see the rules being able to take on a shape that can accommodate both of those?

MM: Yes, but it’s the trickiest part. It’s easiest when the DM can say you’re using it or not. I’m working on the tactical rules this week. What I’m trying is to do, and we’ll see if it works, is to make it a layered approach. Imagine if the rules are eight pages long. So you can say: just use the first page if you want miniatures and the grid. Then use the second page for cover and stuff. If you want a knockback system and you think it’s cool and want to bake it right in, add this section. If you add all eight pages, you have a very tactical combat system.

But I think the key to that- and this is where RPGs are really unique- I don’t think we can force a player to understand how the system works and understand all their options. When you sit down to play, you might just grab a race, a class, a theme, and go. Let’s say I want to play a Fighter. I want to play a Nobleman who is kind of a drunk and the black sheep about the family. What’s interesting to me in this campaign is where this character’s story goes. Then lets say you play a Fighter too, and you really like tactical combat. You like the puzzle it presents. So I’m going to choose a bunch of maneuvers, and some more tactical options. That’s a case where it’s really important to be clear to the group how a DM can handle that. Really, a group is a set of friends saying “hey, what do we like about D&D, what kind of game are we going to run.”

At the end of the day, there’s only so much we can design that can enforce a DM being flexible and making his players happy. What we can do is create these rules and create these layers so that the DM understands how to build for his group. When making a compromise game, a DM can sit down and say “I’m not going to use all the rules, because Mike will be unhappy. But I will use some of these rules so that Dave is happy that his maneuvers will pay off.” Things like that.

When you think of exploration, interaction, and combat, our three pillars theory, the people who like combat want more rules. It’s almost like the more you like interaction, the fewer rules you like. You want to playact, you want the DM to play back, I don’t want a rule to determine if the lord of the keep decides to go along with us. I want to get there by portraying my character and being persuasive, I don’t want a die roll to determine that. So it’s kind of interesting that way. I think the guy who doesn’t like interaction just wants to roll a die and be done with it.

CH: This might give some hints on other possible modules, but could you see there being a module that more gamifies the social interaction, or the exploration?

MM: Oh yeah, absolutely. You can definitely imagine that. I didn’t use that example by accident: if you’re a tactical gamer, can I make interaction tactical? Can I make exploration tactical? When you’re negotiating or exploring, can I bring that same puzzle from combat to it? There can be a crunchier system for that. We can add more prescribed options to it: do I want to intimidate this guy, or give him the soft sell? That way, you can think about it more tactically. That way you’re saying, so you like this about D&D, let’s extend that to other areas, because that’s what your group is opting into. We’re not trying to make everyone play that way.

Another area where that can pay off is areas covered by other indie games, like Robin Laws’s GUMSHOE, where players have increasing power to affect the narrative. Those mechanics speak more to the player than the character. We can use a rules module that adds that element. It’s a very different way to play D&D, but because it’s only aimed at players who like that, not trying to get everyone in the world who likes D&D to play that way. Only players who say “oh yeah, I definitely want that in my game.”

CH: So then modules you don’t necessarily envision slicing across the lines of “you like combat, you like interaction” but more along the lines of what kind of player you are, so tactical-minded players could have options everywhere?

MM: Yes, exactly. Really it’s the style of the group too. For the style of the player, that’s where more of the player option comes in. For looking at a list of themes versus a list of feats, that says a lot about a player. “Forget the themes, I just want to customize” versus the player that doesn’t care about the rules and just cares about their story so takes a longer look at the backgrounds and themes that have an interesting story behind it.

CH: Do you have any recommended adventures for trying out the D&D Next rules for those of us who have run Caves of Chaos enough times already?

MM: Yes, I would imagine that’s getting tough. You have all the critters from Caves of Chaos. Going into the classic adventure well- basically, something like The Veiled Society or something with more investigation in it. I think it would be pretty interesting to take the playtest to the next stage with something little more out there, that’s out of a dungeon and a little more plotted out. Something that’s more based on interaction or exploration. If you want to do something really weird, if you took an adventure from a different system like an Ars Magica adventure, that would show how far you can push these mechanics. You’re looking to see if it’s still working, or if there’s no obvious gaps in what you’re seeing.

It’s funny,  you’re talking about a fantasy game, it would be great to try something like a medieval Call of Cthulhu adventure. Obviously you’d have to do some conversion and mock up the monsters. Then ask “how does that feel in the system?”

CH: When talking about different styles of games, and looking at the different releases of playtest material, do you see it continuing with “here’s the game, go play what you want” or will there be more targeted releases looking at a specific module or style of play?

MM: As we go forward, as more core rules become settled, expect to see tests that are just try these tactical rules, here are the rules for this style of campaign, or just play through this adventure that works with those. For the first couple releases, expect it to be pretty similar, because we still have issues with hit points and healing and stuff, but hoping to nail those down. We want to avoid a situation where the tactical rules aren’t working because healing isn’t working, so we really need to fix the core issues first.

First round of feedback, I think we’re in a good place to move forward. We just got the final data from the surveys in, and the community team collects links to blog posts and forum threads and we look over those as well. I’m doing the AMA now and most of the questions are about tactical issues, which we knew was going to be an issue going in. It’s good that we haven’t had any complete surprises so far. It is a little disappointing we haven’t fixed healing yet, because we’ve been working on that for a while. We got the same exact feedback in Friends & Family, and so we need to keep working on it.

We have the maneuver system coming. We probably will release a few more sample characters before character creation is released to play around with.

CH: Do you have a plan on how many playtests are coming, and where it’s going?

MM: We mapped out a plan for playtesting that covers 6-8 months of playtest content. We have flexibility built in, so if for example the tactical rules go over like a lead balloon, we can loop back to it and do some more work there. We have a schedule to go from the beginning to the end, if we have more work to do, we’ll work it in.

CH: Do you want to take a stab at what percent you feel the core is finished?

MM: I feel like the core rules are about three quarters done. That’s based on putting the rules out there and it seems to be working. Really, the healing is the one very core issue that we really need to fix. Attacks of opportunity is another one, where a lot of people are having trouble with combats where people can walk back and forth without consequence. In that case, any rules we make we want to keep really simple. We don’t want to go back to a 3e-style list or anything like that.

That’s actually a really good example. We don’t see anyone saying “it’s really weird that I can use my bow or cast spells when next to an enemy.” Universally, it’s “it’s really weird I can just walk by someone.” That’s the kind of feedback that’s really great because it helps us narrow in on the problem to be solved.

CH: Do you find that you’re getting a lot of feedback that’s more about the “feel” of rules, or are you getting a lot of responses that are specific like “you should just go back to the attack of opportunity rules from 3e?” Are you getting more people that are providing feedback, or more people who are trying to design the game for you?

MM:  That’s what’s really been interesting about it and what’s been really been making me happy. People seem to have really embraced the idea of the playtest. We do sometimes get people who say “here’s exactly what we should do” but the clear majority has been “this happened, and that sucked.” “It was lame that the fighter could just walk by the monsters to attack the evil cleric.” People have been really descriptive, which helps a lot. Again, it helps us narrow in on the actual problem.

CH: Are you going to provide a bit more direction on these later playtests? I know the releases might become a bit more specific, but are you going to provide more direction on what you’d like to see out of the releases?

MM: Yeah. We want to be pretty upfront if we are playtesting the tactical combat rules to say “if you don’t like using miniatures, don’t even bother, since you’re not going to be happy.” If the playtest feedback is just “I don’t like using miniatures” then, yes, that’s how it should be.

So we’ll definitely be clear about what we expect.

Thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer our questions, especially during the midst of his AMA.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Great stuff. I just started a blog series on using other classic adventures with D&D Next. Hopefully the discussion can help with the issue of the Caves of Chaos getting stale.

  2. Gargs454 says:

    Excellent write up. Just ran our second playtest session the other night and I feel a lot of what Mearls says here is on target. The only thing that has me perhaps a bit worried is the 6-8 months of playtesting. I think it may need to go a little longer, particularly considering that some of the monsters are more than a little bit off in my opinion. I think its especially important to give ample time to playtest the assorted modules together. For example, make sure that not only are the core classes balanced, but make sure that if somebody wants to play a simple fighter in the same group as a tactical fighter, that they remain balanced.

    That to me seems to be where they want to go with this edition, but its not enough to say “Okay, the fighter in the core packet is balanced with everything, and the tactical rules created balanced characters too, so we’re good to go.” Of course, I could be wrong, they may simply be saying that as a group we should pick either simple or tactical, but that’s not the impression I am getting.

    At any rate, thanks for the write up!

  3. crowofpyke says:

    Very interesting read. Nice to see that WOTC is listening to the feedback. However… there is this notion in the form of a question: “For one example, the Ranger design goals were posted, and the question came back if ranger really needed to be a class, instead of a theme or something similar. Is changing something like that still on the table?”

    I have played a Ranger in every edition of DND since 1st/ADD. I will NOT play DND Next if the Ranger is not its own class and is just reduced to a theme.

Trackbacks

  1. […] there is still at least 6 more months of public play test left for 5E, which is exactly what we see Mike Mearls saying in his Critical Hits interview. That’s quite a bit of time for things to be developed and changed in when you have a team of […]

  2. […] on Reddit (the “Ask Me Anything” thread at Reddit is busy busy busy…) and doing interviews like this one with Dave Chalker @ Critical Hits… I think they actually are listening to all the feedback folks, which is great news. […]

  3. […] the same time, I also realized that many others have interviewed members of the Design Team and Mike Mearls even hosted an extensive Ask Me […]